If you’d ever been to Spenger’s, an old school fish place at the foot of University Avenue in Berkeley, you’d know it. There wasn’t anywhere else like it on earth much less in town.
It was among the few spots Cal students would go with their parents and have an okay time and feel comfortable about the experience. It was an after-game destination for generations upon generations of Bay Area families. It was a hangout for some students and a place for a special occasion for others. It was a place you could take a professor to lunch without breaking the bank (even if you did have a drink or two at the bar while waiting for a table) and without feeling too weird about it.
I once shared an unforgettable meal with history professor Bill Slottman and fellow student Jim Crosby. If you knew either Bill or Jim (or, God forbid, both), you may already be seeing in your mind’s eye what kind of experience that likely was. To say it was both hilarious and insane is an understatement of colossal proportion.
But for our family, the place had an even longer history and deeper experience.
In the spring of 1941, my dad graduated from high school and entered the California Maritime Academy, in Vallejo, just up the bay from Berkeley, with the intention of becoming a maritime engineer, as his dad was. In December of that year, of course, those plans, and the plans of many other young men changed. The academy accelerated its course, to provide the American fleet with the many new officers it would need to fight the Second World War. Things around the place got really intense and really serious.
One night, my dad and a buddy had a night of leave, and ventured down to Berkeley to find some fun, or trouble, or whatever sailors at liberty do, and happened to pop into Spenger’s. They met a couple of girls and the boys were looking so good in their uniforms, and everyone was just so patriotic and, you know, one thing led to another and, the next thing they knew, according to my dad, the last bus back to Vallejo was gone, without them.
During wartime, such things as missing muster carry extreme penalties.
The boys began to sob and rend their garments and Mr. Spenger, himself an old salt, took notice. He knew, by God, the serious dutch these guys were in, so he lent them one of his fishing boats to get back to the academy, which they gratefully accepted.
As a result of Mr. Spenger’s generosity and trust, no cadet blood was spilt.
My beloved Erika played in the Cal Band while an undergrad. After every home game, her family would travel up from Fresno to watch her and the Golden Bears play, then adjourn, post-game, to Spenger’s for a meal, some drinks and other traditional merriment.
That last part often included her dad Dwight jumping up on a table with his buddy Gary and leading the place in Cal cheers. I’m told no blood was spilt on those occasions either.
The place meant so much to us and our families as a place of singular memories that Erika and I made Spenger our son’s middle name.